Donovan - Barabajagal
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Often lamely pigeon-holed as the “British Bob Dylan,” in many ways Donovan was always much closer to the wire-haired Bard’s doppelganger, contrasting Dylan’s shrewd, dark linguistic imagery with his own doe-eyed optimism. On his ninth proper record, Barabajagal, released in late 1969 as the Age of Aquarius bled dry into the Big Rock Seventies, Donovan was in a period of transition. One of the decade’s foremost hippie troubadours, he brought in the Jeff Beck Group—comprised at the time of Beck, future-and-sometime Stones Ron Wood and Nicky Hopkins, and drummer Tony Carr—and surrounded his whimsical storytelling and aspiring visions with the barbed edges of acid-rock for the first time. With Mickie Most manning the boards again, the album would prove his most consistent effort, and unlike so much of the songwriter’s material, it hasn’t become stale with age.
Three-plus years of soft folk music had culminated in the previous year’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven, a mantra to all the hope and freedom the sixties wanted so desperately to espouse that had resulted in the top-five title track and the minor hit, “Jennifer Juniper.” By comparison, Barabajaglal was far more coarse around the edges. The opening title cut must have come as quite a shock to the fuzzed-out loyalists Donovan had been breeding since 1966’s Sunshine Superman. Hard-wired with caustic guitar grinds courtesy of Jeff Beck, the track stumbles to drunken feet after a too-long night, with wrinkled pub piano and a rough trashcan fuel so squalid and greasy it’s hard to see through the alcohol fumes. Leslie Duncan and Madeline Ball provide the cooing background voices, climbing the scales in the back as the band’s cranky rhythm section carves up the floor.
Elsewhere, “I Love My Shirt” is an inane Sesame Street ditty addictive enough for proper lobotomizing, and “The Love Song” jumps a simple dance groove and flighty piano rolls into a harmless enough jaunt. Like much of Donovan’s back catalogue, these are songs that require the absolute tolerance of the listener, and to enjoy them you really have to lose much of yourself in their stark, elfin escapism. “To Susan on the West Coast Waiting,” however, is a return to Donovan’s protest era, a patient character-oriented story about Vietnam. Donovan gets inside the flag-burning and the Hanoi Jane hatred in this open letter from a soldier stranded away from his love, wrapping his tale in a slow jungle beat, nearly silent acoustic guitar and subtle organ lines.
The fire-lit acoustic daze “Happiness Runs” was first issued on the previous year’s Donovan in Concert under the working title “Pebble and the Man.” Perhaps the album’s simplest song, consisting only of a revolving acoustic guitar part and vocal contributions from both Graham Nash and Scaffold’s Mike McGear, it evolves into a merry-go-round chorus, bloated with the all-inclusive glee of the sixties. As Donovan sings inanities like “thought is like a little boat upon the sea” and “you can have everything if you let yourself be” it’s hard to imagine, in these post-Bush II times, the kind of elasticity the song promotes.
The record’s centerpiece arrives in the epic sky-gaze folk of “Atlantis,” which would be Donovan’s final stateside Top 40 hit. Beginning with dim acoustic guitars and hovering organ lines, the rhythm section ushers in a pounding bar-room piano, arranged by keyboard impresario Gabriel Meckler (whose also worked on material by the, cough, mighty Steppenwolf). The coda here is simply stunning, and is often compared justifiably to “Hey Jude,” as Donovan and a rag-tag chorus repeat the refrain “Way down below the ocean/where I want to be/she may be.”
The British flip to the title-track, “Trudi” brings the Jeff Beck Group back into the fold. An aggro-rock song head-fucked with swampy blues and the sort of hillbilly Friday-Night-Swoon Billy Preston brought to the Let it Be sessions, its wicked beat and country-dance mentality make you wish Donovan and Beck had hooked up for an entire record. Donovan almost slithers through lines like “I can see by your eyes you’re a good gal/and the sparkle of the ring on your hand,” and the strangely smarmy vocals match the track’s sweaty libido. It’s the closest he ever came to the overt sexual gamesmanship of fellow sixties icons like Jagger.
While it’s tempting to seize on these rougher edges on Barabajagal as an expulsion of all the hippie froth for which Donovan had made his name, airy tracks like “Where is She?” and “Pamela Jo” show he was still a bit spongy. Instead, the record was perhaps more detour than exodus, one that saw Donovan really fronting a conventional rock band for the first time and proving more than an adequate lead. With Barabajagal in the books, Donovan parted company for a while with Mickie Most, who had guided his dander sound from the start. As the next decade struggled to oblivion to forget the promises and pledges of the sixties, Donovan was never forgiven his Hippie Troubadour prominence, and has never really recovered from those associations in the fickle hipster barometers of popular music. With the re-release of Barabajagal imminent, complete with twelve bonus tracks, perhaps now is the moment we re-embrace this goddam hippie.